Saving the Best for Last: St. Paul’s Cathedral

Some last minute schedule-jiggling meant our last stop on the educational library tour was St. Paul’s Cathedral, the baroque masterpiece by architect Christopher Wren, the architect who lived 1632-1723. Wren built his masterwork on the site of the previous St. Paul that had perished in the Great Fire, with construction funded by a coal tax and felicitated by bright Portland Stone from the “King’s Quarry” in the county of Dorset.

After several plans were rejected as overly modest, Wren began work in 1675 and finished in 1710, which sounds kind of speedy on consideration. It’s also poignant that it was the great architect Inigo Jones who had redesigned the west end of the gothic former St. Paul in 1660, but the fire would soon wipe out his vision.

The cathedral’s history is as vast and deep as that of the city it represents, the site of many famous weddings and funerals over the centuries. A place of Christian worship has occupied the spot since the year 604 (yes, only three digits in that year). Oliver Cromwell barracked soldiers at old St. Paul during the Protectorate phase (1653-1658). And of course it stood as vital support to British morale during the Second World War. The stained glass was blown out on one side by the Luftwaffe, and the cathedral took two direct hits, in 1940 and 1941, though somehow there were no casualties and the cathedral stayed mostly open throughout the war.

The idea for the library on the site was hatched by one John Evelyn (a cohort of the famous 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys) who suggested a national library at the west end of St. Paul. However, the library initially held fewer books than expected because of the Great Fire.

Elizabeth, our lively and humorous hostess, took us to the Triforium (with a view of the vast nave) and into a private alcove where mosaics were tested. The art was done by William Blake Richmond, named for the famous mystical religious artist, whose mosaics decorated the vaults of the choir. We saw his “cartoons” (preliminary drawings) of the  Annunciation, a bit of a fretful-looking King David, and Jesus telling the parable of the wheat.

We saw the bust of George Cruikshanks, Charles Dickens’ illustrator, who had the honor (?) of being so well-respected that he was dug up from his tomb and reburied in St. Paul’s. She told stories of the cathedral history with relish. She explained that St. Paul’s is still a working church with daily services. 

Off the alcove was a room I did not catch the name of (I wrote down Lapsarian, which is churchy but doesn’t seem to be correct) where a collection of marble was stored, including half a lion’s head, that had been salvaged or discovered via excavation from the ruins of the the old St. Paul. 

Then we went to the dim, high-ceilinged reading room to meet the dryly witty Cathedral Librarian, Jo Wisdom. In a musty-smelling room filled with old theological tomes, Wisdom laid out the library’s holdings: Strong in theology and church history, obviously, and bits of related things like philosophy, and holy topography; i.e.,  travels to the Holy Land. The official religion of Great Britain is Reformed and Catholic.

When asked about how “heretical” books were treated at this religious library, and how various denominations had been catalogued over the centuries, under different rulers with different beliefs, Wisdom argued that such shunning and separation of books “wasn’t the English way,” perhaps referring to religious tolerance in England. It’s rather touching in this secular age — especially in England, where Christianity is pretty much inert — to see people who take religion seriously.

As always, the talk turned to cataloguing and digitizing. For the St. Paul’s library, he brought good news and bad. The good news: The database contains 85% of collection. The bad news is that there are some challenges to work through before it gets online and in front of the public. Still, Wisdom said the library was available to all who had a use for it.

Going off on an interesting tangent, Wisdom related how the Victorians may have unwittingly hurt the profession of librarians/archivists when it “professionalized” everything, stamping everyone with a particular specific title, resulting in curators, archivists, museum directors, librarians…inhabiting their own knowledge silos and not working together sufficiently, even though they share a common cultural language.

The room we spoke in was shelved in the early 18th century, with the “big books shelved at the bottom” and relying on an author catalog for finding them. The library doesn’t do restoration, Wisdom emphasized; they were not trying to make things look like they did in the 18th century. Berated himself for “gassing far too long.”

Continuing the “wow” tour, Elizabeth showed us a dizzying geometric spiral staircase bolted into the wall with no other means of support, it looked tenuous, and frankly I was afraid to peer over the edge. The singular staircase has made several appearances in movies, including Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Elizabeth showed us colorful Victorian fonts and pulpits, add-ons to Wren’s vision, now in storage, and updated us on the status of the big bells, like Great Paul, the largest bell at St. Paul’s and the largest ever made in Britain. (It’s currently broken.). There are several big bells, like Great Tom that strikes the hours and marks the deaths of members of the Royal Family or the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Perhaps most impressive was the model of St. Paul, in a room of its own, a miniature version of the original accepted design (though Wren created a loophole that let him be generous with alterations) at 1:24 scale. Even the tiles had an elaborate floor plan drawn by another draftsman, also on display.


The view from near the top was worth the many hundreds of spiral steps it took to get there. After three separate flights I was certainly feeling “closer to God” (or perhaps it was a heart attack coming on) but the trip literally couldn’t have ended on a higher note, as can be seen below:



Running Hot and Cold at the Royal Geographical Society

At the Royal Geographical Society in Kensington Gore, librarian Eugene met us in the lobby and gave a well-organized and highly informative presentation on the historical stories the RGS library holds in its collection. Cannily, he told us tales of two explorations, one near the sweltering equator, the other at the South Pole. He got into the library business studying English, not geography, and maybe that was revealed in his narrative expertise.

The Society was established in 1830, during the golden age of British exploration, to promote scientific geography, and now holds some 250,000 books, 4,000 atlases, half a million images (mostly photographs) and thousands of objects. Those include the hat worn by journalist Harry Stanley and the worn-out boots and pith helmet worn by the trekker Dr. David Livingstone, the two men brought together by fate in deepest Africa.

We sat around a large table in the Foyle Reading Room filled with those kind of fascinating items, with one side of the table lined with objects telling the story of Stanley and Livingstone in Africa during the age of exploration, the other about the frustrating, often fatal race to the South Pole, Antarctica, in the early part of the 20th century. A “hot” side and a “cold” side, he joked.

The personalities came to life under the expert tale-telling, strengthened by the immediacy of the original items before us.

The race to the South Pole was launched by a conference in 1895 in London. Like Africa before it, the South Pole had an unknown blank at its heart. The Society raised money for an expedition, and the government eventually provided matching funds. We heard of the expeditions of Ernest Shackleton, who found a passage onto the polar plateau but ultimately was stopped short of the South Pole, and of commander Robert Scott, seen as aloof but who gained heroism when he died in his second failed race to the South Pole, beaten to his goal by the man credited by Eugene as being the best explorer of all, Roald Amundsen. The Norwegian reached the South Pole in December 1911, and one of his travel secrets–let’s just say it involves dog meat. As for the blank in the map, it turned out to be full of ice.

The Society has some fascinating photos preserved from that trek, showing the frozen tundra, and the dogs and humans who made the trek, including a haunting picture of Shackleton and his crew after the attempt in 1909, all left looking like on the tail-end of a 10-day bender. We also saw one-of-a-kind items like “The South Pole Times,” a journal of sorts full of poems and cartoons used to wile away the days when it was too bitter to work. Scott, who always carried a Bible, was shown as a parson complete with hat. His Bible, which he discarded on his second doomed expedition as an example to his men, was kept and later returned to the Royal Geographical Society.

Eugene graphically explained why a “sextant” (an instrument of celestial navigation) at the South Pole would have handles made of ivory and not brass. Because metal would stick to your skin at those temperatures and take it off if you tried to pull back. 

Besides expected sets of maps and globes, an enormous collection of current travel books to every conceivable destination lining the reading room walls. The collection also contains tangentially related objects, like a wooden bust of Henry Stanley. I was intrigued by a photograph of an African guide for English explorers smiling, unembarrassed by his rotten teeth. Why does no one in 19th-century photographs ever smile (exposure times, or perhaps bad teeth)?

The RGS often sends out to other museums the popular Stanley and Livingstone hats and shoes and other items, like the “artificial horizon,” which used any available pool of water and a little geometry to make the sextants work even when the sky is not visible (as in dense wilderness or built-up areas).

The librarian gave us a little glimpse into historical revisionism, when he noted that in Livingstone’s diary, he was captured as preoccupied with his quest for the source of the Nile River, and was unimpressed with the Lake Victoria waterfalls. But when it came time to write a book his first view had been retro-conned into being awe-inspiring. Also, we only have journalist Stanley’s word that his greeting to the trekker was, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” Some of Stanley’s relevant diary pages had disappeared.

For a long time the map of Africa in general (and the location of the source of the Nile specifically) was largely blank, with filigrees of detail around the edges on the more well-explored coasts. The explorers filled in the center, writing the map as they went. Sadly, Dr. Livingstone never found the source of the Nile. It is now generally considered to be Lake Victoria (discovered by the troubled adventurer — is there any other kind? — John Hanning Speke, rival to Richard Burton).

When the explorer Livingstone died in Africa, his remains were brought back by his friends save his heart, which remained on the continent he loved. He lay in state at the Royal Geographical Society.

RGS is credited for encouraging the establishment of geography as a separate discipline. We were told how the library was trying to shake the perception of a stuffy middle-class clubbiness and appeal to other groups in the community. There are less than ten on staff of the library itself, which is open to scholars and researchers; the general public has to pay a fee of 10 pounds. I wish I could have seen one more room, but evidently they outsource many tasks like conservation (except for minor things like book-spine repair) and so there wasn’t other additional work to see.

He explained that some items are just too fragile to be lent out to other libraries, but their operating philosophy is to lend out when they can, because they want the objects seen, after making sure the other library or museum is sufficiently insured. In Great Britain it’s known as “government indemnity insurance.”

Speaking of fragile items, he explained his wearing of protective gloves. Many of the librarians and archivists we’ve talked to on our trip have eschewed them, because they don’t provide enough feel and make you clumsy among the delicate materials). For books he agrees with the new conventional wisdom, but for items the gloves were needed.

With superior story-telling matched with poignant items, the Royal Geographical Society was a highlight visit for me. A careful study of the maps drawn by actual explorers even helped me fill in a few weak spots in my own general knowledge.

No Bodleian, But Far from the Pitts in Oxford

Whilst winding our merry way to the Bodleian Library at Oxford, our group ran into a buzzsaw of Oxford tradition known as Encaenia, involving graduation, honorary degrees and very warm-looking black capes and frocks, and celebrated with lashings of whipped cream and silly string. Our group called an audible and instead made our morning jaunt to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which I thought of as the world’s coolest junk shop, with items from around the world and from various ages grouped not by cultural or geography but function, so that all the Cambodia masks, Japanese masks, Ethiopian masks, etc. were displayed together, with tools and guns and other weapons arranged the same way.  


The pudding, as you can surmise, lacked a theme, the setting was a bit murky to protect the items, and the museum overall has been left in a state of old-fashioned authenticity, with old-style explanatory cards for items still displayed in fonts unforgiving to modern eyes. But on the longest day of the year, and perhaps the hottest, the air conditioning to protect the collection was an unexpected bonus. 

The museum was one huge self-guided tour. “There is no start and no story to follow,” as a pamphlet accurately put it. That lack of guidance could be intimidating, but such an open plan also means the opportunity to stumble upon intriguing things you had no idea you had an interest in, like what ancient societies used for currency in the absence of paper bills and minted coins.

The museum was founded in 1884 by (deep breath) Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers, who donated 20,000 objects to the University of Oxford, on condition a museum be built to house them; he also stipulated the novel arrangement by form. According to the welcome pamphlet, it now has over half a million objects, various practical and quotidian items, as well as pictures and manuscripts. We spied many, many glass cases over the three levels.

I am overusing the word quirky on this blog, so I’ll just call the tiny exhibit of camel photos cute. Every UK museum apparently has an exhibit of netsuke (carved Japanese toggles before the days of pockets) and Pitt Rivers Museum had plenty, with a good solid paragraph of information on the placard for netsuke addicts. All the objects, even seemingly minor ones like beads, drawstrings, and the aforementioned netsuke, got their due. I was most interested in the collection of all types of currencies from different cultures, including various notched rocks and carved wood (hard to make change with these things).


While the Bodleian Library may occupy the heights of Western Culture, the Pitt Rivers Museum emphasizes the down-to-earth utilitarian objects humans of all races and various time periods used in their quotidian lives.

Bodleian, Schmodleian! Christ Church Library in Oxford

On the day our group went to Oxford the Bodleian Library was closed for an arcane British ritual (well, graduation day) but Christ Church provided everything a library lover could want. It’s one of six copyright libraries that are entitled to a copy of every book published in the United Kingdom, though it isn’t obliged to take everything.

Boyish looking Steven, the head librarian, took us on an enthusiastic tour, exuding the kind of effortless mastery the British do better than anyone. Each of the colleges have their own library. All subjects are covered in the generalist collection of Christ Church, which provides essential textbooks but not the more specialized ones, which must be obtained from more specialized collections on campus. Christ Church prides itself on a 45-minute turnaround for item requests.

Steven emphasized the library’s cozy relationship with students, in opposition to the stereotype of a stuffy and forbidding British library. Oxford terms are very intense 8 weeks, which can mean lots of papers to write. One of 10 students drop out (or “degrade”) despite strong efforts by the school to keep students in. As an example of student service, the library swiftly acquires books from Amazon Prime or the famous Blackwell’s Bookshop, so there’s a very quick turnaround.

The Oxford colleges — there are dozens of them and run independently — are relatively small and compact — the library in fact makes up one of the four walls of the Christ Church quad. Students here have tried to get the library open 8am-1am, a sneak attack toward the goal of 24-hours a day. Steve explained the library just wasn’t designed to withstand that kind of constant occupation.


The library tries to get rid of books sometimes, but it can be tough, if someone donated them, or an Oxford persona wrote them. Also squeezed out by the need for showers for students, of all things. Not ideal, he noted dryly, with humidity and the chances for leaks posing risks.  

Steven is only the third librarian in 60 years, so clearly they tend to stay. He’s only been there a year but has the wisdom and knowledge of someone twice his age.

In what’s becoming a theme for these old collections, he noted that a lot remained uncatalogued of the older stuff, including texts on the history of the library itself. It was a challenge to get potential donors excited about ledgers recording the purchase of books in Latin!

The college charter did not include a library requirement, which was unusual, but one was eventually set up. Richard Allestree left his collection for use by Regius Professors of Divinity when he died in 1681, and we went up into a forbidden turret to examine the ancient collection, the imported tiles on the floor date to Saxon times. Theology is well-represented but there are other works as well. Steven showed us a medieval “pop-up” book of medicine for surgery. He emphasized that even these rare books comprise a “working library” not a museum and it is all accessible to students and researchers.


The history of the current library began in Cambridge. Oxford’s dean saw Christopher Wren’s Cambridge library and wanted one of his own. Sixty years later, it opened. Among the many fascinating items are first editions of Newton and Boyle, among other items of scientific scholarship. When the library received a motherlode of old prints and drawings via one large donation in the 18th century, they made a picture gallery just for them, which formed one of the first public galleries in England.

While we gaped over a beautiful Book of Hours, Steven explained the difference between an illuminated manuscript (gold leaf) and an illustrated one (colors). One of those colors, lapis lazuli, is a special hue of blue from Turkey, more expensive than gold at the time, which explains why Virgin Mary traditionally is portrayed with so much blue in her cloak.

He showed us a Bible draped in velvet chemise, provenance obscure but which is presumed to have a royal connection. This one even had the original silk stitched in to protect the image of God from the harm of facing pages when the book was closed. Had connections to Oxfordian author Lewis Carroll, and our group spied out the view of the garden where he first met the child Alice.


Steven the Christ Church librarian was very generous with his time and his enthusiasm was contagious, livening up the warm confines (it was the hottest June day in England in a generation) as he pulled fascinating items onto the table for us to gawp at.

I hope to access the amazing Bodleian collection on a separate trip to Oxford next week, but in the meantime Steven and the Christ Church collection ensured the group did not leave Oxford empty-handed.

No Stuffiness at Middle Temple Law Library

Middle Temple is one of the four Inns of Court in London, for lawyers (barristers) who practice in England and Wales (Scotland and Northern Ireland have different systems). The four Inns are Inner Temple, Middle Temple, Lincoln’s Inn, and Grays Inn. Each Inn has a Royal sponsor or two (Prince Williams represents Middle Temple), and it is law that a barrister must join one of the Inns upon passing the bar exam, inheriting a free stable of paralegals, a dining hall, and most important, a library dedicated to their needs.

There are eight on staff, and are open to accommodate barristers’ busy schedules on Saturday and by rota (rotating schedule) on Sunday. The library is contained in four floors and two basements, rare books room has temperature and humidity control, rolling stocks. The four libraries of the inns work together to reduce duplication.

Middle Temple in particular specializes in American-related law books connection because of previous colonization schemes. Five of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were “Middle Templars,” according to a pamphlet on the United States Collection, while a whopping 39 signed the U.S. Constitution. Also important: We learned that law libraries tend to pay relatively well.

Our group met with Renae, who was very forthcoming and generous with her time and information. Hailing from Canada, Renae is surprisingly the first rare books librarian the library has employed, though the library certainly has its share. She explained that it was founded in 1641 upon a donation by Inn member Robert Ashley, and that it remains a working law library, although in its earlier years the collection was not necessarily focused solely on law books. The continuing citation of cases from the 17th century prove the need for it, she noted.

She took us to the high-ceilinged banquet hall of the Inn itself and laid out Middle Temple’s eclectic history; Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was first performed at Middle Temple, and one of his King John plays has a scene at an Inn — either Middle Temple or Inner Temple (Psst, it was Middle!). Renae pointed out that this was actually a rather natural progression — after all, lawyers by nature are performers, and what is law but performance art?


The library holds some interesting items not related to the law, like a pair of globes, one of land and one of space, by famous globe-maker Emery Molyneux, a 16th century mathematician, the earliest globes in existence. The library holds two of the six known artifacts.

The Rare Book collection is based on the bequest of Robert Ashley, who founded the library in a sense when he died in 1641 and bequeathed his personal holdings to the Inn. Ashley was a man of varied interests, and the first books of the library were not all law books, reflecting Ashley’s interests of alchemy, magic and the occult, especially Rosicrucian practices. Today the library holds 250,000 items, with a strong source of American law resources, as befits its history.


One non-legal book that holds pride of place is one by Pierre Belon from 1555, L’historie de la Nature des Oysequx. From the library’s Rare Books pamphlet: “This is a book on birds and other flying animals lavishly illustrated with multiple woodcuts.”

In previous centuries, Renae explained that the law was more of a day to day thing, more people were touched by law, through lawsuits and the like over land claims. It’s possible Shakespeare’s knowledge of the law evident in his plays came from just intelligent observation. Author Charles Dickens wrote an amusing letter asking for his money back from his time at law school here. The author worked briefly as a law clerk, which is where he may have gathered material for one of his greatest novels, Bleak House, whose sprawling tale revolves around the most famous fictional court case in literature, Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce.

Middle Temple Library was another expectation-defying trip — not just dusty law tomes (though there were plenty of those both in print and online) but unique items coming from out of nowhere to compel attention.

The Quirky Codebreakers of Bletchley Park

Less than an hour northwest of London lies Bletchley Park, the top secret-codebreaking operation which helped turned the war against the Germans in World War II. As the spread-out complex documented, the concept originated during the First World War, when Commander Alexander Denniston formed “Room 40” to break enemy diplomatic codes. It’s most important coup was decoding the Zimmerman telegram from Germany trying to lure Mexico into the war. It was intercepted by Great Britain and, after being leaked discreetly to America, served to draw the U.S. into the war. “Room 40” later became the Head of Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS).


“Room 40” carried over as a nickname when the enterprise moved to remote Bletchley Park in 1939 as the Second World War heated up. Some but not all of the buildings were reinforced to withstand possible enemy bombing, and situated near trees to make them less a visible target from the air.

The job had become more complicated during the all-to-brief period of world peace: The code-breaking of the First World War involved actual code words, while in World War II the art and science of deciphering coded enemy communication got exponentially more complicated. The ciphers created by Germany’s Enigma machine to conceal their communications were encrypted at the level of the individual letter, making them harder to break, with so many more iterations possible.  

A tour guide explained that the odds of cracking the code randomly was many many trillions to one, making the expertise and technology of Bletchley Park’s machines and human denizens vital to the war effort against Germany. They used Typex machines to break Germany’s Enigma codes.

I was impressed by how the Bletchley Park museum project managed to cover all angles. It emphasized the personalities as well as the complex engineering behind the code-breaking, both on the human and machine level. It showed no hesitation in showing the code breakers as an odd lot, without any singular kind of expertise or training, just semi-random people who had an arcane talent for the newly invented discipline of cryptography: historians, classicists, linguists, even injured soldiers. 

Clearly the team had its share of creatives, and the museum emphasizes that quirky human side to as well as the hard-core language analysis side to charming effect, rounding out the personalities by showing the work of the base’s amateur cartoonists, poets, and satirists, cooped up in Bletchley Park, winning the war. They also feature certain stars, like the young math whiz Bill Tutte.

Along with the sometimes heavy lift of the technical explanations of cryptography, the museum gave a good sense of the personal psychology of the workers at Bletchley: Crammed into huts in a sleepy town away from London, lacking the ability to breathe a word about their live-saving work to outsiders or even among themselves, the museum showed how Bletchley Park became something of a hothouse environment for romance.

An Enigma machine used by Germany to encode messages during the Second World War

It was a diverse group of people (as Google, a museum donor, emphasized in a public-relations display) hurled together on a single task: To break Germany’s encryption intelligence machine, Enigma. Over half of those employed at Bletchley Park were women, unusual for the time. It was here that Alan Turing, later persecuted for his homosexuality, perfected a decrypting machine, the Bombe, that eventually broke Enigma. (Google also created a sort of encryption “Easter Egg” for “Bletchley Park” searches.) Among the exhibits were even some handy tips and warnings on the importance of internet security today.

With items scattered among the several rooms in the visitor’s center and the original huts and buildings, the layout came off as slightly cryptic (see what I did there?) but that probably goes with the territory.


Flawless Wallace

The Wallace Collection is a national museum with no entry fee, housing an impressive collection with a focus on art of the 18th and 19th century. It’s an undervalued treasure in London; I’ve come here many times and don’t think I’ve ever heard of it until this trip. The art was compiled over five generations of one family, the first four holding the title of the Marquesses of Hertford, according to the more informative-than-usual laminated guide-sheet at the entrance. The last was Richard Wallace, and his widow donated the family collection.

Five generations of the Seymour family lived here, and over the years garnered quite a collection. In that five generation, in 1897, his widow bequeathed 5,500 artworks to the country, which later went ahead and bought the house itself to keep the art in. It does indeed feel like it’s at home here — there’s plenty of space for everything, and nothing hung too high to appreciate or uncomfortably crowded adjacent another work.

The Wallace bills itself as an “International Treasure House,” and to prove it, contains an impressive collection of Canaletto’s famous panoramic-style paintings of Venice. The ornate museum still resembles a great family estate, divided into study, boudoir, etc.. There’s even a small conservatory on the landing and the rooms look like they would still be livable with just a return of carpet and chairs that weren’t artwork. Helpful guides in folders at the door of each room explain the origin and meaning behind the paintings.


In an unusual touch, the Collection has laid out in the European Armoury room a few printed catalogs for perusal, where one could research the provenance and details of particular objects under glass. The one I picked up was dated 1962 and I have the feeling there won’t be a revised edition in print anytime soon.

Highlights of this focused collection include holdings in Van Dyck, and various court painters, as well as several Sir Joshua Reynolds portraits and Rembrandts, including a self-portrait. I got my first glimpse of The Laughing Cavalier by Franz Hals, whose eyes follow you around the room, just like the cliche.


I was also struck (figuratively) by the ornate wall tiles in the alcove showing what the smoking room looked like in the late 19th century.


Another room, another treasure: The Swing, a prime example from the period of rococo (a kind of overgrown lush over ornate Baroque style) by the French artist Fragonard, who perhaps deserves more respect than he gets. (I’ve seen this before but only today noticed the shoe flying off her foot).

The Wallace also had more domesticated items, as befits its origins as a house, with tables and chests of drawers inlaid with various marquetry (furniture decoration) along with an impressive selection of porcelain. With strong holdings laid out in gorgeous surroundings with an eye to pleasurable viewing, the Wallace Collection deserves more attention, even in a city with a surfeit of museums like London.